Mindfulness & Wuwei


I recently attended a two-day seminar on mindfulness training in a program promoted by Google.  A Google engineer was inspired by mindfulness and decided this practice should be Google’s next gift to the world.  The program is now being taught all over the world, largely in corporate settings.

Despite my initial skepticism, I thought it was quite good – the teachers were steeped in the practice and well-versed in the latest science on meditation, and of course both were clinical psychologists because that is the route through which modern science is opening up to the benefits of meditation.  Practices included attending to the breath, feeling the body, noticing emotions, journaling, and conscious listening.

It wasn’t noted in the seminar, but mindfulness meditation per se comes from Vipassasa practice in Buddhism.  Vipassana – meaning “keen observation” – uses systematic conscious observation as a gradual method to chisel away at our illusion and impurities in order to uncover our pristine original nature.  From a modern agnostic-scientific-corporate perspective, we are chiseling away at our distractedness in order to optimize our brain function, creativity, emotional intelligence, happiness, and productivity.

It is pragmatic to meet people where they are (“skillful means”), and these practices, which are fundamentally non-cultural and non-sectarian in nature, have adapted to many different cultural and religious contexts for millennia.  Since we’re living in a largely post-religious scientific world, it probably makes sense to present these practices from a scientific perspective, as most of us trust doctors, psychologists, and scientists more than priests or shamans.

While mindfulness practice is wonderful in itself and has countless “benefits”, I am compelled to write about the distinction between mindfulness & wuweidao – they are not the same thing.

The Chinese term xin (心) translates as heart-mind.  It represents our central consciousness consisting of a harmony of 5 distinct kinds of spirit, each associated with 1 of the 5 phases of qi.  One of these spirits is yi (意), which means mind-intent.

Mindfulness practice engages the yi to look into the xin in order to gain perspective, to calm down, and to improve our ability to remain centered or to handle difficult situations.  Two Chinese words for mindfulness practice are ding & guan (定觀) – focus & observation (see Ding-Guan post).

There is a term in esoteric Daoism called the “Yellow Woman” (黃牝) – these characters are featured above.  “Use the yellow woman to harmonize yin & yang”.  The color yellow implies the qi-phase soil, which represents central equilibrium and is associated with yi.  The character for woman here – “pin” – shows an ox plowing a field, so the image is of furrows in soil.  While the process of plowing represents intentional practice (wei, 為), the open, empty grooves represent emptiness, fertility, and open potential (wu, 無).

Most traditions, including Daoist alchemy, agree that meditation practice needs to start with some degree of intentional effort, but at some point effort needs to be abandoned in order to allow our practice to ripen.  In Daoist terminology, we start with youwei (有為) – intention and control (plowing the field), and finish in wuwei (無為) – abandoning intention and control (relaxing effort).

In wuweidao, we abandon intention and control pretty much from the very beginning.  It takes some degree of intention to sit and maintain the specific points of posture, but once we’re sitting we just let everything go, leaving our cultivation to the great Dao.  We’re not actively cultivating and we’re not exerting effort to be mindful – this is an important point.  Letting our mind be as it is without placing effort or mindfulness or anything else upon it.

Mindfulness is the process of actively plowing the field.  Wuweidao by comparison is the practice of empty-mindedness – xuxin (虛心).  While mindfulness may aspire to wuwei as an ultimate goal or consider it an advanced stage, in Laozi’s practice we consider wuwei the fundamental method of nature itself and jump right in with full faith in the capacity of Dao and our own inherent virtue.


10,000 methods come & go

From where, to where?

I don’t know

Weary of them all

Something else arises – of itself

Can’t really call it a method

Call it wuweidao


*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Wuwei & The Zen Circle of Zen Master Seung Sahn

One of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s foundational teachings was the Zen Circle.  It highlights different experiences and approaches to cultivation and serves as a compass for our practice.  He broke the circle into 0°, 90°, 180°, 270°, and 360°.

0° represents our “before practicing” condition.  In Buddhism this perspective is characterized by discomfort (dukkha) & delusion (samsara).  In Daoism it is characterized by vulnerability to qi-disorder.  This condition is our everyday “monkey-mind”, associated with animal consciousness and basic survival.

90° represents striving to improve ourselves, to gain understanding, or to find relief from suffering.  This includes self-improvement paths such as fitness & martial arts striving to achieve excellence; therapeutic paths working to release our issues; and philosophical paths ruminating to understand reality.  In Daoism these approaches are referred to as laying the foundation – they can be an important step in rectifying discomfort & delusion to prepare us for internal cultivation.  This perspective separates human beings from other animals, but it offers limited fruition if we don’t progress to other parts of the circle.

180° represents emptiness, samadhi – a direct encounter with our original nature.  In Daoism this is referred to as infinity (wuji), pre-heaven (xiantian), or original spirit (yuanshen).  The experience of wuji transcends paths of fitness, therapy, & rumination – these paths may or may not lead to 180°.  Laozi refers to 180° as “returning radiance” – turning the light of awareness around to shine upon itself.  Gazing into the source.  This is the direction of alchemy practice.  Daoist alchemy isn’t just gazing with the mind but turning all of our qi around to flow back into the unborn origin.  There are physiological changes.  But this fruition too is incomplete – it’s a phase, similar to sleep or death.  Dao continues to generate myriad worlds & creatures, so if we are to abide in complete reality we need to not fixate on samadhi.

270° represents the realm of magic and miracles.  Playing with pre-celestial qi.  This is the realm of Daoist ritual practice, tantric Buddhism, and some kinds of yoga.  It differs from 90° because we are channeling pre-celestial qi, so it is much more subtle.  Magical practices usually focus on refining qi, improving conditions for ourselves or others, or actively treating karmic conditions to bring them to resolution.  While such “getting what you want” practices may improve conditions, they ultimately don’t offer any lasting end to discomfort and struggle.

360° represents complete reality – things-as-they-are.  Laozi, like Zen, starts and ends here.  From this perspective, there is really no need to struggle for survival, to strive for fitness, release, or understanding, to focus inward, or to play with magic.  Letting ourselves be just as we are, without distortion, without spiritual ornamentation, and without effort is wuweidao.  This means responding to things as they arise.  Importantly, 360° is located in the same position as 0°.  This is the nature of “sudden” paths – we don’t have to gradually progress along any path in order to arrive, as the destination is always at hand if we only open our eyes.  All of the other points on the circle take time to ripen.

People often misunderstand Laozi as being a philosopher, alchemist, or sorcerer, but none of these are entirely correct.  “The great Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow-paths” (DDJ 53).  Narrow-paths are 90°, 180°, and 270°.  Once we have a wide-open 360°-view, we see these paths in a larger context.  We can see their benefits and limitations.  We can engage in them without becoming entrenched in them – our motives are different because our view is different.  Laozi’s adepts may or may not practice the myriad methods – none are required or prohibited.

“My way is easy, but no one can practice it” (DDJ 70).  Pragmatically speaking, it may be difficult for us to accept that our before-practicing condition is truly complete.  We may feel the need to practice narrow-paths to experience their limited fruition before we are ready to trust 360°.  Go for it.  At 360° there is no need for self-improvement, transcendence, or magic.  There is simply a profound appreciation of our natural experience.  Zen Master Seung Sahn summed up his experience in this wonderful poem about wuwei:

Your original nature is always shining and clear;

Human beings make something and enter the ocean of suffering;

But if you don’t make anything, you are already complete;

The high mountain is always blue, white clouds coming and going.


Emerging Phoenix

My community recently suffered  the most devastating wildfire in California history, with more than 6,000 homes burned.  As the community recovers, I am reminded of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that regenerates itself by dying in flames and emerging anew from the ashes.  It thus serves as a symbol of hope, recovery, and rebirth after disaster.  Let’s consider this image from the perspective of wuweidao.

People typically celebrate birth & growth and want to avoid decline & death.  In Laozi’s practice, we see these phases all as part of one continuum happening within an unchanging context.  Birth & growth inevitably lead to decline & death; decline & death inevitably lead to birth & growth.

In Laozi’s practice, we recognize all aspects of natural process as the unfolding expression of Dao.  We yield to whatever arises.  Struggling to maintain growth or to avoid decline brings about exhaustion, stiffness, & internal blockage – ironically increasing the power of decline & death.

Disaster happens; rebirth & recovery happens – like a pendulum.  Wuweidao means staying with things as they are – relaxing aspirations for what we want and resistance to what we don’t want.  Hoping to obtain, maintain, or avoid particular conditions is not really part of the basis of Laozi’s practice.

Wuweidao is about continuity – the continuously renewing stream of reality has no beginning, no end, and no interruptions.  To stay with reality, we have no choice but to experience birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death as they come.  Sometimes we need to go through destruction in order to continue.

Although one may expect such a laissez-faire view to lead to some kind of complacent stupor, if we engage this view in meditation & qi-cultivation, we find that something quite different emerges.

Yin darkness gives birth to yang radiance.  Zhuangzi thus described Laozi’s practice as “cold, dead ashes”.  While some Daoist arts look impressive and exciting, Laozi’s practice looks anything but.  We are relaxing yang-expression, letting the fire calm down to nurture the radiant embryo inside.

Laozi says: “Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow paths.”  The character for wide-open (夷) suggests barbarian tribes leveling a village to the ground.  This image is similar to wu (see What is Wu-Wei? post).  Laozi is reminding us that although we may prefer particular conditions, the field we are actually abiding in is wide-open and unconditioned – the unborn and undying field of reality.

Not only do death & disaster happen from time-to-time, but things are in a sense continuously dying and being born.  The stream of reality is like a standing wave – stable yet continuously flowing – out with the old, in with the new.  When we let this current flow, letting ourselves die moment-by-moment, we likewise find each moment fresh and new – continuously-arising inspiration.  The ten-thousand things are continuously being destroyed; the phoenix is continuously emerging.